I’d spent a few days driving around Yangon and surrounding townships talking to Buddhist monks about their political activism.
This was before the anti-Muslim 969 movement led by nationalist Buddhist monks got started, and way before November's monk-led protests against the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
I was interested in finding out how their religious beliefs spurred them to activism, and about their relationship with the state-appointed governing body of monks.
Maggin Monastery was one of my first stops. U Indika, the sayadaw, or abbot, was active in 2007’s Saffron Revolution, and was thrown in prison because of it. I was introduced to U Indika through some mutual acquaintances—another Saffron Revolution monk had escaped the government crackdown that snared Indika and wound up living, kind of unbelievably, a few blocks from me in Brooklyn.
I spent a couple hours talking to Indika about his activism and about rebuilding his monastery, and headed back a few days later to see more of the daily life at Maggin.
When I got there he was headed out the door, trailed by two junior monks. Their maroon robes were wrapped in the formal style covering necks and arms, and because of that and the fact that it was the time of morning when monks normally head out to gather offerings, I guessed that’s what they were up to. My translator and I tagged along.
After winding through narrow alleys into another Yangon township, I learned that they were headed instead to the home of some of U Indika’s longtime-devotees. A young couple had been married that morning, and now wanted to make their first offering as husband and wife.
My translator and I sat on one side of the room, facing the row of monks. Family members knelt to our right, bowing and responding in unison once the ceremony got underway.
In addition to the alms monks get daily on walks—their main source of food--there are times throughout the year when Buddhists make ritual donations of robes and fans and alms bowls and money. The schedule of these donation ceremonies is determined in part by the calendar, in part by particular monasteries, and in part by life events like marriage.
The donors accumulate merit that helps them later in this life and in future ones.
A centerpiece of the donation rituals are long recitations of texts from the pali cannon—the classical texts of the Theravada school of Buddhism that’s predominant in much of Southeast Asia. This is a 38-part recitation the monks did, and is a standard one for offering ceremonies:
After the ceremony, as the family prepared a meal for the monks, people sat on the floor and chatted. My translator and the oldest monk—U Tay Zeinda from Myanmar’s Mon State—realized that they’d both been political prisoners at the same place and time.
It’s surprising how often this kind of connection happens in that country.
After the monks finished eating, another table of food appeared. This one was for my translator and me.
Myanmar is full of generous moments like this.